Christmas Books for Christmas Time

Ah, Christmas. That busy time of the year when families come together, follow family traditions, and generally stay inside eating, sleeping, and watching television despite the gorgeous summer weather outside. If we did this on any other summer day people would think we were mad, but because it’s Christmas no-one bats an eyelid.

This year I’m heading away to house-sit at a friend’s place over the Christmas holiday. It will just be me by myself on the 25th, and so I have complete say over how festive I want the day to be… or not to be. At the moment I’m thinking of just having a relaxing day without too much Christmassy stuff – a sleep in, a walk along the beach, maybe check out a movie. Pure bliss!

But don’t worry, I’m not anti-Christmas. Over the past weeks I’ve been reading and listening to lots of Christmas stories to get in the festive spirit. I’ve read novels, short stories, kids’ books, and more, and here are some of my favourites to get you in the Christmas spirit.

Cover of Skipping ChristmasSkipping Christmas by John Grisham

What would you do if your daughter went travelling overseas, and you didn’t want to celebrate Christmas without her? Skip Christmas and book an overseas cruise, of course! At least, that’s what the Kranks have planned, and so they buy their tickets, get their tans, and start dieting to look their best on their tropical holiday. But even the best-laid plans can go awry, and the Kranks’ neighbours won’t let them off easily with not celebrating the Christmas season …

This is a fun, light read, and I bet you’ll see some of your own neighbours in the characters living in Hemlock Street.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but until I’d read this, I’d always thought Truman Capote and Al Capone were the same person. I couldn’t wait to read about how an American gangster celebrated Christmas as a kid!  Needless to say, this wasn’t the book I expected it to be…

What this book was was a lovely stroll down memory lane. A beautifully-illustrated short story, it takes you back to a simpler time, when your biggest Christmas worry was whether 7-year-old you and your 60-something-year-old friend would have enough money to buy the secret ingredient to go in your Christmas fruitcake to send to the President. A lovely quick read that will leave you feeling sentimental about childhood Christmas memories.

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol by Richard Curtis

Hands up if you grew up with Blackadder and his friends Baldrick, Darling, Queenie, et al! If so, you don’t want to miss their take on Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol.

It’s Victorian England, and when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set out to reward the good and the generous, they come across Ebenezer Blackadder, ‘the nicest man in England’. While in Dicken’s story, the villain comes good after being visited by Christmas ghosts, this version has the opposite outcome – the lure of wealth and power can turn even the kindest of souls.

This has all the humour of the Blackadder shows you love, and is a highly enjoyable hour of audio. Plus, it’s written by the same Richard Curtis who brought us that other guilty Christmas treat, Love Actually, so what’s not to love?

Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders

Moment of truth – I’m not actually finished this book just yet, but that doesn’t matter. This book is fantastic, and I am loving every minute I’m reading it!

Detailing the traditions of Christmas, where they came from, and how they came to be in the form we recognise today. Christmas trees, yule logs, carollers at the front door – OK, it *is* a very British and Euro-centric book –  this book is a wealth of interesting tidbits that might help you out at a pub quiz some time in the future. Maybe it’s just because I’m a language geek, but the way this book uses excerpts of ‘ye olde English’ to illustrate the information is one of my favourite parts of this book. For example, did you know that Christmas carols were originally written as ‘macaronic carols’ (carols written in two different languages). I didn’t know that word – I had visions of sheet music made out of macaroni elbows!

A perfect read for the geek in your life.

The Best Christmas Present in the World by Michael Morpurgo

I’ve always been a fan of Michael Morpurgo – I remember reading My Friend Walter as a 10-year-old, and being struck by the way he told the story of a modern day girl and an Elizabethan ghost. I’ve read many more of his stories in the years since, and this short story has become one of my annual Christmas reads.

When people get older, and move in to nursing homes and retirement villages, they leave behind furniture and other belongings that tell the stories of their life. In an abandoned desk, we find a letter telling the story of the great Christmas Day truce and football game between the British and German soldiers fighting each other in 1914. It’s a lovely story, and shows that even they we all have our differences, we have more in common. A beautiful book to share with children 8 years and up.

Whatever you choose to do this December, I hope you have a lovely summer break, and a Happy New Year, and remember to check out Christchurch City Libraries for more Christmas reads, watches, and music.

Ngā mihi o te Kirihimete – Christmas Greetings to you all, and see you all in 2019.

A Life in Pictures – the work of Michael Foreman

I fell in love with Michael Foreman’s illustrations many years ago when I first discovered Michael Morpurgo’s books. I soon found out that he also wrote and illustrated his own stories, including War Boy and War Game which were stories about his experience of World War II. I found out a lot more about Michael Foreman and his huge body of work when I borrowed a fascinating new book from the library called A Life in Pictures.

Pages from A life in pictures
A glimpse inside A life in pictures by Michael Foreman

A Life in Pictures is written by Michael Foreman himself, and looks back over his long career in the creation of books for children. It is a beautiful book that is packed with Michael’s illustrations and stories about the books that he has worked on and the people he has worked with. You can read about Michael’s war childhood, the importance of location and landscape in his illustrations, the people that have influenced him and the people that he has collaborated with.

If you’ve read a Michael Morpurgo book you’ve probably seen Michael Foreman’s illustrations. The M-Team have been collaborating for over 20 years (their first book together being Arthur, High King of Britain, published in 1994).

I’ve always felt that Michael Foreman’s illustrations are the perfect match for Michael Morpurgo’s stories. Michael Foreman mentions in A Life in Pictures that ‘Michael Morpurgo not only writes good stories, he writes good pictures. His stories are full of them.’ His illustrations for Morpurgo’s stories are usually in black and white, but it’s the smaller, shorter stories, like Little Manfred, where his full-colour illustrations shine.

Over the years Michael Foreman has worked with many other authors, both living and dead.  He has brought the stories of Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and Kenneth Grahame to life, bringing the ‘classics’ to a new generation of children.

My favourite edition of Michael Foreman’s classics is Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows.  The colours are so vibrant and the characters leap off the page. Michael also travelled to New Zealand in 1987 to visit Kiri Te Kanawa to research a book based on legends told to her by her grandmother. This book became The Land of the Long White Cloud.

A Life in Pictures is a fascinating read for anyone who loves books for children and would be a valuable resource for artists or those wanting to become illustrators.

See the film, then read the book

 "War Horse" book coverPrior to the quakes of recent months, my social life included an occasional visit to the cinema. With the demise of the Arts Centre cinema, which was my frequent haunt, and a reluctance to enter cinemas in shopping malls without sussing out where ALL the escape routes are (a particular behavioural trait which previously I had displayed only when flying …),  I found I was watching a good deal of films in DVD format at home. Nothing wrong with this except my perceived lack of  ‘a sense of occasion’ which cinema visits had previously inspired in me.

However, this all changed when the trailer for War Horse appeared on my small screen. Suddenly the TV and my lounge were too small for such an epic story… And what a story! Imagine  a combination of Gone with the wind for wonderful technicolour processes; a plethora of  Lassie films for pathos; and a similar storytelling format to  Black Beauty, whereby a succession of characters are introduced through the short snatches of time they spend with Joey, aka ‘War Horse’, in a truly unsettling period of history.

My background knowledge of the use of horses in war, and especially during the 1st World War, was admittedly sketchy, but for all the graphic and mental horrors of this period in history, I felt the film’s editing was first rate – the futility and carnage of battle was left to the viewer’s imagination (my runaway ‘fertile’ imagination notwithstanding). Now I am going to read the book. As a general rule of thumb books come first followed by film adaptations, but not this time…

Anyone else admit to being influenced by the film first before embarking on the novel?

If so, check out our listings of Books that have been made into films and television. (For those movies that are yet to be released try Read the book – then see the film.)